Columns, Opinions

Mulligan ’19: The burden of gratitude

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 27, 2019

After reading the Providence Journal’s recent profile about dinners hosted by Brown donor Martin J. Granoff  P’93, I was deeply troubled and wanted to write a piece in response. At the dinner, hand-selected students, many from wealthy backgrounds, get together to network and attend an event with an approximately $9,000 tab. I found it especially concerning that the Division of Advancement claims that these are not school-sponsored events, yet they assisted in setting them up. I am also concerned by the way these events widen the divide between wealthy students and the rest of us.

But as I sat down and tried to articulate an argument out of my class-based frustration, I found myself hesitating. I receive financial aid. As far as I know, I’m not the recipient of any of Granoff’s scholarships, but I’m here at least in part because of donors like him. I felt the need to constantly qualify my anger: to say that it isn’t directed at Mr. Granoff himself or anyone else who answers the calls of the Brown fundraising team. Rather, I realized that I am most upset about the fact that Brown quietly helps set up off-campus happenings that disproportionately benefit the most privileged students, often with the least need for making connections.

So instead of echoing the frustration that my peers have expressed across social media, I want to write about gratitude. As the Brown community continues to work through the unsurprising revelations of elitism, I’d like to propose that we keep in mind the ways that financial aid recipients get caught between wanting to discuss the benefits that our wealthier peers receive and knowing that our access to Brown may depend on the generosity of those same peers’ families.

While well-connected students have received emails from the Division of Advancement with the details of a clandestine networking event, I and the rest of the 44 percent of the student body on financial aid receive an unfailing email each fall that, while from the same office, is quite different in tone. It begins politely enough, with the subject, from fall 2018’s email, “Request for Annual ‘Thank You’ Letter for Financial Aid Donors — Please Read — Important.” The email contains a link to a survey to fill out so that the Division of Advancement can “create important and meaningful impact reports for our scholarship donors.” The survey also functions as a “personal message of thanks” and, so the survey claims, “often results in networking opportunities and contacts between you and your scholarship donor!”

I still remember the confusion I felt when I received this email as a first-year. I hadn’t thought that my time at Brown was contingent on my performance of gratitude. But, after all, that email was just a request. Donating was a kindness that I benefited from. Even as I struggled to adjust to a campus that seemed to instantly be a second home to everyone around me, I recognized that it was a privilege to be here, one afforded in part by scholarship donors.

As the years went on, my cynicism about the scholarship letters increased, even as I grew more comfortable here. The surveys were time-consuming — asking me to answer questions about what makes me unique, memorable moments at Brown, research experiences and my plans for the future. I felt an uncomfortable obligation to put myself and my experiences on display so that Brown could continue benefitting from donors. This wasn’t a thank-you letter so much as it was a carefully curated exhibition.

When I received my fall 2018 email, I ignored it. I was busy, tired and a little curious about what would happen if I just didn’t reply. The answer was nothing, in the sense that there were no actual consequences for my decision. Though, I did receive numerous emails that gradually became less cheerful than the first email.

After I missed the first deadline, I received a second email from the Division of Advancement with the header, “Your Important Task as Financial Aid Recipient — Urgent ‘Thank You’ Letter Survey.” Five days later, when I received, from the same sender, an email entitled, “Repeat Notification: Your Named Scholarship Pairings,” I was informed that I was “required to thank the donors of these scholarships directly and in your own words through our recently-requested ‘thank you’ letter survey.” A “required” thank-you felt a bit contradictory — shouldn’t a sincere thank-you be given of my own free will? I ignored those emails, too. By the last email I received, the subject had gone from treating the survey as a “request” to my “responsibility.”

My final semester is paid for, so I’m not particularly concerned that I’m suddenly going to find myself struggling because I didn’t properly genuflect to the 1 percent. My casual refusal to cooperate with Brown’s increasingly demanding emails left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Was my gratitude requested, or was it mandatory? If the latter, how sincere could my thank-you actually be?

I hadn’t been thinking about these questions until Sunday’s Providence Journal article, and suddenly all the feelings came rushing back. Some of those who posted on an anonymous student-run confessions page expressed sentiments that seemed in-line with the Division of Advancement’s thank-you policies. “[T]hose who are complaining about the Granoff dinners should calm down. These donors are literally giving Brown money to fund our professors, classes, dorms, amenities, fin aid, TA programs, dinning halls, everything,” read one. Another, claiming to be an international student who left because of Brown’s lack of affordability, spoke directly to the students infuriated at the news, saying, “I hope you’re aware of the damage you’re doing to donor relations in the search of ‘transparency’.”

There’s no way to confirm the identity of the submitters, of course — they could all be fake attempts to incite class warfare. But there’s nothing anonymous about the comments that President Paxson made in a letter to the Providence Journal, announcing that the Division of Advancement would no longer provide support for the dinners. Paxson concludes by saying, “[T]he report does a grave disservice to Mr. Granoff by casting his generosity in a negative light … It is highly unfortunate that the Granoffs’ generosity and commitment to the well-being of Brown students has been distorted and misconstrued.”

Paxson’s words and the anonymous comments reflect similar sentiments: If students aren’t properly expressing their thanks to the richest of the rich, then we are harming Brown, other students and, ultimately, ourselves by not being fully appreciative. Criticizing the actions of the wealthy may cause them to huddle Smaug-like over their treasures instead of benevolently offer them to Brown, and thus, we should keep quiet. By voicing our dissatisfaction, we may even be seen as ingrates.

Our community should discuss how burdensome it can be to get an education that puts you in debt not only to traditional loans but also to the benevolence of those who can afford to start scholarship funds in their names. About the emotional toll that occurs when you’re always aware, in the back of your mind, that there but for the grace of God — or donors — you go to your classes and reap the privileges of an elite education. Our gratitude toward donors like Granoff should not require us to be silent about Brown’s faults.

Caroline Mulligan ’19 can be reached at caroline_mulligan@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com